2 August 2016

Doomsayers get it wrong

Author: Leonidas Donskis / Source:
We live in the time of fear, panic, and doom-mongering. Never before did the modern Western societies have so little trust in their institutions, so little confidence in their ability to fulfill political visions and programs as they do now. We would be deceiving ourselves in thinking that it had always been so. Social criticism is not fear-mongering, just like the new waves of moral panic should not be equated with so many dystopian novels of the past.
Most troublingly, the profound popular mistrust in Western political elites and in their decision-making smacks of disbelief in liberal democracy itself. It is not a big deal when a far right- or left-wing hack starts inflaming popular sentiments with no judgement or expertise to draw on. It is far more worrying to see the reputed British and US journalists styling themselves as the new-born Cassandras, proclaiming the inexorable doom of the West.
True, some news is grim, some trends are hardly consoling and the leadership is often far from inspiring. The Brexit is a perfect example of how irresponsible political classes can make a mess of a major political project of their country and undermine its strategic allies by abandoning the vision of their predecessors. And for the sake of what?! To blackmail the EU? To flaunt the credentials of defenders of the British Pound? To defend Great Britain from ever being run by Germany and France? To be on the winning side of a domestic power game?
If so, it is an old game. Global affairs have often been jeopardized by domestic politicking. And now as well, people perfectly unsuitable to lead their countries into the 21st century world, line up for the top positions: just look at Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. They are embarrassingly inadequate when trying to make a point on global affairs. They are a boon to stand-up comedians. But they hardly qualify as sound and responsible policy makers. Their (mis)adventures and successes are a worrying signal of how we increasingly lose the moral compass and raison d’être as the bearers and defenders of liberal democracy.

One of Europe’s foremost sociologists, Zygmunt Bauman warned us that the divorce of power and politics is ongoing. Whereas power is about what we can do, politics is about what we should do. Power is about our ability to reach out to the world and achieve something, and politics is about instruments we have at hand to get things done.

The bad news is that these two realms are now increasingly separated: whilst power appears as global, politics still remains local. We cannot win the mandate to the European Parliament without local and national politics, yet as soon as we get to the European Parliament’s chambers, our horizon ceases to focus exclusively on our country. The asymmetry of power and legitimacy is a striking paradox in present politics.

Hence, the anger, bitterness, and frustration of the new-fangled Cassandras – political analysts and commentators who feel that the right cause is not sufficiently and decently advocated and pursued. After the referendum, Great Britain began exporting instability and moral panic, instead of stability and assurance. The United States is as divided as never before in terms of (dis)engagement, isolationism, race, justice, and equality. The revanchist and revisionist Russia blackmails the West by threatening its periphery in the Baltic. Georgia is not welcome in NATO as of yet, in spite of all measures that Georgia took already as a credible ally. Western elites are quite corrupt and filthy when it comes to Russian cash cows and tycoons in London City or Vienna.

Even so, the fear-, panic-, and doom-mongering is not the right answer to these challengers; nor it can show the West the way out of present political predicaments and moral dilemmas. Some believe that history repeats itself literally. They say that we re-live the Europe of 1930s and Russia is the modern equivalent of the post-Weimar Germany, setting itself against the rest of Europe. But such interpretations are generated by our selective memory. They offer simplistic comparisons but no way forward.

Suffices it to remember the dramatic events in the 20th century, such as the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Caribbean crisis, the year 1968 with social and political upheaval in the West coupled with the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia, then the Iranian revolution, war in Afghanistan... Who told us that we are bound to live in the quiet times? Aren’t we the hostages of the end-of-history narrative, which was born of the euphoria of Pax Americanain early 1990s?

John Steinbeck reflected on the Caribbean crisis in The Winter of Our Discontent; 1968 paved the way not only for Milan Kundera’s novels The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but for the entire film industry in the USA and Western Europe as well. Therefore, it is deplorable to witness the industry of fear take over the media, instead of creativity boosting our will to defend liberty and democracy.

We have heard a lot about Vladimir Putin’s Russia benefiting from useful idiots or naïve critics of the West. We must notice, that the myth of the West’s impending doom benefits that same sinister cause.
Leonidas Donskis is a Lithuanian philosopher, historian of ideas, and writer. A former Member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). Donskis has written and edited over forty books, seventeen of them in English. His works have been published in eighteen languages. He serves now as Professor of Politics at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. Donskis holds an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Bradford, the UK (2011), and an Honorary Degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from Valahia University in Târgovişte, Romania (2014). 

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